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Soros Donates $1 Million for Needle Exchanges, $15 Million for Drug Policy Reform, and $25 Million for Programs in Baltimore


September-October 1997

Billionaire philanthropist George Soros said he will donate $1 million to the Tides Foundation, a San Francisco-based organization that will distribute the money to needle exchange programs around the country (Christopher Wren, "$1 Million Gift for Needles Is a Lifesaver, Financier Says, Not a Ruse to Legalize Drugs," The New York Times, August 17, 1997, p. A20; "$1 million donation for addicts' needles," Chicago Tribune, August 18, 1997, p. 7; "$1 million for needles," Houston Chronicle, August 18, 1997, p. 7A; "Needles for Addicts," USA Today, August 18, 1997, p. 3A).

Soros told The New York Times in an interview published August 17 that he does not support the legalization of drugs, but that prohibition is impossible, so reducing the harm associated with drugs is the best policy. Soros said the scientific evidence shows that needle exchange programs help to reduce the spread of HIV and AIDS among intravenous drug users by allowing them to trade used needles for clean ones. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated one-third of new infectious HIV cases were intravenous drug users, their sex partners and children. Of all the projects he finances, Soros said this needle exchange project "is the one that is actually going to save the most lives."

Soros donated about $1 million to ballot initiatives last year that allowed California and Arizona voters to approve the medical use of marijuana. Soros has spent more than $15 million in the past several years promoting drug policy reform by financing organizations such as the Lindesmith Center and the Drug Policy Foundation. He says, "I don't have an answer to the drug problem. I think we need to explore many different ways of dealing with it, and I think that which we are doing now is doing more harm than good."

In a cover story in Time Magazine, Soros said his foundation, the Open Society Institute (OSI) would give $15 million over the next five years to organizations that oppose the current anti-drug effort. "Our [American] drug policy is insane," said Soros, "And no politician can stand up and say what I'm saying, because it's the third rail -- instant electrocution." Soros added, "I do want to weaken the drug laws. I think they are unnecessarily severe. The injustice of the thing is outrageous" (William Shawcross, "Turning Dollars Into Change," Time, September 1, 1997, p. 48).

In addition, Soros said he is giving $25 million to set up an OSI office in Baltimore to address drugs, poverty, crime and problems in education in that city. Soros said he wants to apply many of his different programs in one city to see if there is a synergy to be gained. Soros chose Baltimore because of its relatively high rates of AIDS, addiction and welfare. "And certainly, the more enlightened attitude of [Baltimore Mayor] Kurt Schmoke toward the drug problem is an important factor," Soros said. Schmoke responded, "I'm sure, whatever he focuses on, it will help" (Brenda J. Buote, "Foundation brings city $25 million," Baltimore Sun, August 3, 1997, p. 1A).

Open Society Insitute - 888 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10106, Tel: (212) 757-2323.